Saturday, September 19, 2009

StLJN Saturday Video Showcase:
Remembering Luther Thomas

This week, let's look at four video clips featuring the late Luther Thomas, who passed away last week at the age of 59. The saxophonist and St. Louis native lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, and all of four of these clips were recorded there.

The first video was made at the Christiania Jazz Club during the Copenhagen Jazz Fest in July, 2008. It features Thomas fronting a quartet in a freebop style, with Nils Davidsen on bass, Jeppe Gram on drums and Mikkel Mark on piano. Thomas plays with impressive energy and agility here, his sound both reminiscent of and distinct from that of fellow former St. Louisans Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill.

Lake and Hemphill were the two top alto players in town when Thomas was coming up, and it's interesting to contrast, compare and consider how each of the three men concocted his own particular mixture of R&B grease, bop-derived chromatic abstraction and pure sound-for-sound's sake.

The second clip is also from the 2008 Copenhagen Jazz Festival, and features Thomas in a seemingly unlikely but ultimately inspired pairing with Eugene Chadbourne, playing the banjo in his singular style. Davidsen on electric bass and drummer Kresten Osgood provide some relatively low key support, skittering around in the background, but the real interest here is the interaction between Chadbourne and Thomas.

By the end of the segment, the former's sharply picked high notes and harmonics and the latter's high-pitched squeals seem to be converging on the same timbre from opposite directions. Thomas must have dug the way this show turned out, because he posted eight videos from it to his YouTube channel; look for the clips titled "GangstaJazz Eugene Chadbourne Luther Thomas Kresten Osgood Nils Davidsen".

The third video is a short duet between Thomas and vibraphonist Khan Jamal, also recorded the Christiania Jazz Club in 2008. It's titled "ODE4OBAMA," and while it's not entirely clear if the audio processing of Thomas' sax is present in the source material, or some sort of artifact of the video and/or compression, it gives his playing an ethereal quality that matches up well with the vibes.

The fourth clip features what Thomas called his Dizzazz Quintet, and seems best described by his own annotation: "This is MY personal blend and what I TRULY think that I sound like: an OliverLake LesterBowie Dolemite NiggahsWithAnAttitude LesterYoung SunRa TyroneDavis MartinLutherKing RoscoeMitchell & PTBarnum..." While I'll leave it to you, the reader, to decide whether or not this particular video lives up to that rather hyperbolic description, there's no doubt that Luther Thomas was a distinctive musician who will be missed.

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